Our word-saturated world renders it difficult for us to conceptualize the level of orality and lack of literacy that prevailed in antiquity. Only a small percentage of the population could read or write (basically scribes, those whose job it was to do so) and works were not written down without compelling reasons. This context must inform our reconstruction of the formation of the books that make up the Hebrew Bible. The complexity of composition defies simple points on a timeline. Imagine the following analogy: A professor puts together a book using class notes that his teacher took while in graduate school, in a class from yet another professor. This book goes through multiple editions, then is translated from German to English, after which it is revised by still another author. Who wrote this book? Which form is the official one? Our little example might span decades, but the books of the Hebrew Bible were composed, edited, augmented, and reshaped over centuries, sometimes over a thousand years. Books that were completed after the exile likely preserve traditions hundreds of years older. The dual tensions of composition in antiquity were to preserve as much as possible, but to innovate and update as necessary. With those caveats in mind, I will touch on a few points of the Bible’s formation.
Two poems of victory, the “Song of Deborah” preserved in Judges 5 and the “Song of Moses” in Exodus 15, give us our oldest parts of the Jewish Scriptures. The archaic Hebrew of these songs and other features indicate that these go back to the formative period of Israelite history, around 1200-1000 BCE.
Solomon’s reign (960-920 BCE) is a likely time for some earlier traditions to be put into writing for the first time. The bureaucracy he established and the efforts to build up his kingdom would have required scribes and records, and his ties to Egypt (he married the Pharaoh’s daughter) would have provided a means for him to do so. Some of the earliest psalms come from this period, and possibly some legal and narrative material now in the Pentateuch.
Though other books contain earlier traditions, Amos claims the status of the oldest book in the Bible, written in the early- to mid-eighth century BCE (788-750), followed by Hosea. Prophetic pronouncements mark an important stage in the formation of the Bible–by claiming divine authority for their words, the prophets marked their pronouncements as authoritative “thus says Yahweh.” These oracles would have been written down later by disciples. The statement “two years before the earthquake” (Amos 1:1) suggests that this earthquake was seen as fulfilling Amos’ predictions of judgment, which motivated people to write down his oracles. Hosea and Amos both preached in the North.
The impending destruction of the Northern Kingdom could have motivated scribes and priests to put their traditions in writing. After the destruction of Israel, many would have fled south to Judah, introducing the Southern Kingdom to the writings of the North. Isaiah was an influential prophet in Judea; his ministry covered a span of over forty years (about 740-698 BCE) in the context of regional wars that led to the destruction of the Northern Kingdom Israel. Given his status, it is likely that his oracles were written down during his lifetime and worked into the book that bears his name by later followers.
Another development important to the idea of scripture involved the attribution of laws to God. Taking ancient Near Eastern laws similar to the code of Hammurabi and then adding “Yahweh says” was an innovation that increased the authority of those laws. Josiah’s reforms in 622 BCE also marked a key point in the development of the Bible. The Deuteronomist may have embellished the event, but Josiah placing himself and his people under the authority of the “Book of the Law” found in the temple was a large step towards the status of sacred authoritative text.
Zephaniah preached a message of loyalty to Yahweh during the reign of Josiah (640-609 BCE); Nahum interprets the fall of Nineveh in 612 BCE to demonstrate Yahweh’s control over history, and Habakkuk prophesied immediately before the first Babylonian deportation of 597 BCE. An early version of the Deuteronomistic History was likely composed during Josiah’s reign, and the Bible makes mention of multiple sources now lost to us, such as the Annals of the Kings of Israel (see 1 Kings 15-16).
These developments lead us to the great literary activity of the Babylonian exile, where a large portion of the Hebrew Bible was composed or edited in only half a century. Ezekiel was composed in Babylon at the beginning of the exile. Though Jeremiah was active just before and in the beginning of the exile, his book was likely compiled during and shortly after the exile. We are fortunate to have an unusually clear understanding of this book. We know that Jeremiah was commanded to write down his oracles and deliver them to the king (chapter 36). Chapters 1-25 seem to parallel this early form of Jeremiah, which was dictated to Baruch his scribe. We have found bullae likely belonging to Baruch and have the signature and even fingerprint of one of the biblical authors. Thus an early form of Jeremiah existed in about 604 BCE (King Jehoiakim burned the scroll delivered to him, but Jeremiah redictated the material to Baruch). It is rare that we can discern the composition of a biblical book in such detail. Other parts of Jeremiah, such as duplicate passages and material organized by catch-words, suggest a long process of editing after Jeremiah’s lifetime.
One of the greatest writers of the exile remains anonymous, as he took up the name of the prophet Isaiah. Historical indicators make clear that Deutero-Isaiah (40-56) was written toward the end of the exile. We know that the Deuteronomistic History was updated during the exile, and most scholars also date much of the Priestly material in the Pentateuch to the Exile, though the final form of “P” is postexilic.
If much was written during the exile, the postexilic period is when things really start to come together. We can date Haggai with pinpoint precision–he writes during the drought of 520 BCE. Zechariah was written around the same time, 518 BCE. The scholar Armin Lange suggested there was a Deuteronomistic redaction of Jeremiah that took up Jeremiah’s mantle to confront the Zion theology of Haggai and Zechariah, preserved most clearly in the “temple speech” of Jeremiah 7 (DtrJer likely expanded a speech by Jeremiah). Third Isaiah was also written sometime around the construction of the temple in 515 BCE. Jean-Louis Ska argued that the Pentateuch was largely composed in the postexilic period, that it is at this time that earlier disparate traditions were woven together to form a national narrative and ritualistic guidelines. The “book of the Law” that Ezekiel read was likely a Priestly form of the legal material in the Pentateuch.
As you can see in the timeline below, the books of Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, and the Song of Songs are difficult to date, falling somewhere in the window of the fifth to the third centuries BCE. The book of Psalms has one of the longest histories of composition, with songs that date to the time of Solomon and with the final form of the book still in flux in the second century.
As we finish up the Hebrew Bible with Daniel, we are once again on rock-solid dating. Drawing upon older traditions as virtually all books did, the final form of Daniel was composed in the midst of the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes IV, in Jerusalem in about 165 BCE. Thus the Hebrew Bible was written during a period of over a thousand years.
As the Septuagint and Dead Sea Scrolls make clear, the boundaries between composition and copying of the scriptures remain fluid. Jeremiah provides an excellent example of this fluidity: the form of the book copied in the Septuagint is one-eighth shorter than the version we have in Hebrew and actually preserves an earlier edition of Jeremiah.
The books of the Bible, like all books, had to be copied by hand, a letter at a time. Thus on top of centuries of editing, the Bible endured further millennia of transcription before arriving at the manuscripts available to us today.
To the left is an image of our oldest witness of the Hebrew Bible, copied before many of the books of the Bible were written! It dates to the last quarter of the seventh century BCE (625-600) and contains the Priestly Blessing found in Numbers 6:24-26. Look carefully at the letters, which are an older form of Hebrew (the modern Hebrew alphabet is actually Aramaic or square script).
(Image source: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)
In our discussion of the copying of the Jewish Scriptures, we will touch on three forms of the text of the Hebrew Bible: the Masoretic Text (MT), the Septuagint (the LXX), and the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP). By forms of the text, I mean that each of these versions has distinct readings and characters, words, or phrases that are in one form but not another.
Most modern editions of the Jewish Scriptures are based on the extraordinary work of medieval scribes called the Masoretes. These families from about 600-1000 CE perfected a long tradition of meticulous copying of the biblical texts. The Masorah refers to the system of vowel signs, accent markings, and marginal notes to communicate how to read the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible. (Hebrew does not have vowels, so markings are placed around the consonants. So “David” would be written “DVD,” with markings below and above to mark the “a” and “i” sounds.) The meticulous care of the Masoretes can be demonstrated by notes that indicate how many times a particular word or combination of words appears in the entire Hebrew Bible, which words only occur once, and even what the middle word is of each biblical book. Such measures ensured the accurate copying of the manuscripts. The Dead Sea Scrolls vindicate the work of the Masoretes in large part; manuscripts over a thousand years older than those annotated by the Masoretes are virtually identical to their later descendents (there are also DSS MSS, “Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts,” that align with the LXX and SP).
Below is an image of Leningradensis, the manuscript of the Hebrew Bible underlying most modern translations. It was copied in 1009 CE by Aaron ben Asher.
(Image source: Pekka Pitkänen’s Old Testament Studies Site)
The Septuagint (LXX) refers to the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made in the second and third centuries BCE. It has its own complex textual history, with many revisions, many of which brought the text closer to that of the Hebrew. The Septuagint is a valuable witness to the text of the Hebrew Bible, but first scholars need to penetrate the translation itself. The translation of some books is wooden to the point of being bad Greek; translators of other books felt free to update and change the text (Isaiah is an example). The Septuagint became the Old Testament of Christianity, so the most famous copies of the Septuagint are the great Christian bibles of the fourth century CE. Our oldest fragments from the LXX are among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Samaritans, the descendents of the scattered northern tribes and transplanted Assyrians, follow a religion close to but distinct from Judaism. Their worship centered on Mount Gerizim, near Shechem. They recognized only the Pentateuch as scripture. Copies of the Samaritan Pentateuch differ from the MT, and forms of this text have been found among the DSS (without the idiosyncrasies of the SP, such as the focus on Mt. Gerizim).
Dead Sea Scrolls
To say that the Dead Sea Scrolls are the most important find for our understanding of the text of the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism is not an exaggeration. The first scrolls were discovered by a Bedoin boy looking for his lost goat, and eventually about 900 manuscripts were brought to light, 200 of those containing biblical text. They also contain extra-canonical texts, commentaries, and fascinating works such as rewritten biblical books (the Temple Scroll is adapted from the Pentateuch, but put into first person from God’s own perspective!). These manuscripts date from the second and first centuries BCE, and therefore are over a thousand years older than our oldest previously known copies. One of our oldest scrolls, a fragment from Daniel (4QDanb), was copied within decades of when the book was written. These manuscripts attest to a time when the text of the Hebrew Bible was more fluid, though about 45 percent of them still align with the text preserved in the Masoretic tradition; about 3-4 percent match the Hebrew behind the Septuagint, and 6.5 percent with the Samaritan Pentateuch.
Below is a picture of the Great Isaiah Scroll, one of the best-preserved manuscripts among the scrolls, and dated to about 120 BCE.
“Canon” (from a Greek word meaning “rule” or standard”) refers to an authoritative collection of texts; in this case, which books belong in the Bible and which are out? The path of the biblical books gaining the status of authoritative scripture can be outlined as follows:
- Law and prophets in the eighth century BCE
- Josiah’s Deuteronomy
- Law and prophets during the Babylonian Exile
- Until the Hellenistic religious reforms, biblical books gain increasing authority
- In Maccabean times, the concept of scripture evolves
- After 70 CE (the destruction of the Second Temple), numbers of scriptural books are given.
Now let’s unpack that.
Law and prophets in the eighth century BCE
We have touched upon the fact that from about the eighth century BCE, prophets claimed to speak the words of Yahweh, and laws were also attributed to God. This innovative claim of divine authority obviously increased the status of oracle and law. Prophetic pronouncements and divine law put into writing laid the foundation for scripture and would become some of the earliest sacred texts and collections.
Josiah based his religious reforms on an early form of part of Deuteronomy (the “D” source). As best we can tell, this text was written specifically for this reform, but it is significant that Josiah himself covenanted to follow its teachings and bound his people to do the same. Everyone and everything is subject to this law: “Keep these words … in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:6-9). This is powerful rhetoric, and the official establishment of this text as a binding document of divine provenance represents an important step towards the biblical texts being viewed as scripture.
Law and prophets during the Babylonian exile
The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple turned Judean society upside down and placed them in the midst of the powerful and alluring Babylonian culture. The Jews needed a way to maintain their distinct cultural identity and traditions. Bereft of king, state, and temple, they turned to their texts—the law provided their cultural identity. They turned to their cultic traditions and prophetic pronouncements as the core of their religious observance, and these factors increased the status of these texts tremendously.
Until the Hellenistic religious reforms, biblical books gain increasing authority
The Persians authorized the laws of their subjects, and this seems to be what is going on in the book of Ezra. Ezra read a copy of the Torah, which was likely some form of the Priestly legal traditions in the Pentateuch. This was another step toward scripture. Until the second century, religious texts continued to gain greater authority.
In Maccabean times, the concept of scripture evolves
All the previous factors increased the authority of religious texts significantly, but it was in the crucible of the Hellenistic Religious Reforms of Antiochus Epiphanes IV that scripture emerged in its full form. This development meant that the authority is in the text, the book itself, rather than just the divine law or prophetic word. After 175 BCE, exegetical literature developed and there began to be quotations of and allusions to the biblical books, as Armin Lange illustrates. The first “canon” lists also develop during this time, such as in the prologue of Ben Sirach.
After 70 CE (the destruction of the Second Temple), numbers of scriptural books are given
After another cultural cataclysm, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, scripture gained even more importance and authority. At this point the text of the Hebrew Bible became fixed (we no longer see the variation evident in the DSS), and specific lists were given of which books belonged in the Bible and which did not. The Jewish historian Josephus mentioned a master copy of the Hebrew Bible in the temple, which suggests an official stand on canon (Antiquities 3:38, 5:61), and stated that twenty-two books were sacred (against Apion I:36-47):
- five of Moses: Genesis-Deuteronomy
- thirteen prophets: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Job, Esther, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Lamentations, Ezekiel, XII (Hosea-Malachi), and Dan
- four other books: Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes
Rabbinic discussions debate the status of a few books here and there, such as Ecclesiastes and Esther, but the canon seems to have been mostly in place by the first century CE.
Of course, given that the Septuagint contains different books than the Hebrew Bible, and that different religious traditions adopted each of these, each community has needed to determine its own canon.
Information found in Jared’s post come from his online courses through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Anyone can take these courses. If you are interested, click here.